Echinacea: Fighting the Cold War

Native Americans in the southwest were onto something when they used echinacea for multiple cures. The flower is now one of the most popular healing herbs among consumers for colds and coughs.

By PT Staff, published March 1, 1999 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Also known as the purple coneflower, echinacea is a member of the sunflower family. Indians of the American Southwest frequently turned the five foot-tall plant into teas, mouthwashes and poultices and used it to treat everything from coughs and sore throats to burns and snake bites.

Echinacea is now one of the most popular healing herbs among consumers; a survey found that at least 7% of Americans have used it. Today it's most widely favored to battle colds, flu and other respiratory infections. Echinacea's primary value seems to be in lessening the severity of symptoms once a cold starts rather than in preventing them altogether.

Of the nine varieties of the plant, only three are used medicinally, Echinacea pallida, E. angustifolia, and most commonly E. purpurea. How does echinacea work? German studies indicate that when taken at the onset of illness, echinacea bolsters the body's immune defense system, specifically by increasing the number of disease-fighting white blood cells. It also seems to enhance the ability of white blood cells to do their work, pumping them up for their fight against foreign invaders.

Also, one ingredient of the plant, echinacein, appears to inhibit the ability of viruses or bacteria to invade cells, while another ingredient, echinoacoside, seems to kill bacteria directly. In Germany, echinacea is approved to treat upper respiratory tract and urogenital infections as well as—in salve form—cuts, burns and other skin wounds.

How to Take It

Based on studies, the recommended dose in treating colds, is 300 mg to 400 mg of dried extract, three times a day, or 30 to 50 drops of tincture, three times daily.

While echinacea doesn't appear to interact with other drugs, taking the herb for longer than eight weeks may have a boomerang effect and suppress the immune system. People with diabetes, tuberculosis or autoimmune diseases should not take the herb. Nor should pregnant women.